Why people fail with New Year’s resolutions, and how we can encourage lasting behaviour change.
Every year on January 1st, without fail, a large part of the British population embarks upon a mass behaviour change programme. The ‘New Year’s resolution’. A single promise that we make to ourselves that we believe will improve our lives. Whether they take the form of big changes like a career move, or smaller goals such as replacing the lift with the stairs, resolutions always aim to better our health or wellbeing. If a friend said to you “This year I want to exercise less and increase my diet of fast food”, you’d think they’d lost the plot.
However, a recent study shows that a whopping 79% of people who set goals have given up by the end of January. At this point, we will feel like failures. We berate ourselves for not being able to see our New Year’s resolution through, and we revert to behaviours that feel comfortable, leaving the positive change for another time.
So, why do we find sticking to our goals so difficult? The answer isn’t straightforward. Luckily, at EF we know a thing or two about behaviour change, so we have put together our top tips towards achieving lasting change to help those who have set their New Year’s resolutions and have their eye on the prize…
1. Don’t be a ‘Sheep’.
Ask yourself if this is the right time for you to make changes in your life. If you feel there is an expectation for change to take place just because it is a new year, motivation is likely to fizzle out. When creating your plan of action, don’t follow the crowd, be the individual you are and start when you know it’s right for you, not because it is January 1st.
2. Find your ‘Why’.
Go to the gym, eat more vegetables, get more sleep. These are the types of things we hear when people discuss changing behaviours, but failure to sustain change is often because we haven’t made a connection between the new behaviour and our values. For example, why should I get better sleep? Research by Professor Matthew Walker shows that better sleep improves many things including our immune system, our memory, and effectiveness at work. All things I truly value. If you keep asking yourself ‘why’, you will slowly define what it is specifically that you value, and this helps to build motivation.
3. Get comfortable with your discomfort.
Most things we value in life require us to go through a level of discomfort to achieve. Whether this is learning to tie our shoelaces, removing the stabilisers from our bicycles or learning to play an instrument. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) suggests accepting discomfort is part of living a life in line with our values. As Russ Harris explains in his book, The Happiness Trap, if we can build some tolerance to discomfort, rather than avoid it, we get to do the things that are important to us.
4. Consistency is key.
Doing something once or twice is unlikely to be enough to make it into a habit. James Clear, Author of Atomic Habits, and expert in habit formation and behaviour change, describes a few key points:
- Start off small: Break down your desired behaviour into small manageable actions. This makes it easier to start and build momentum.
- Make it obvious. For example, if you would like to eat healthier foods, put them at eye height in the fridge, and remove all of the unhealthy foods and put them out of sight in the top of a cupboard. This stops the unhealthy autopilot snacking!
- Make it easy. Remove as many obstacles as possible or barriers that might hinder progress, so the new behaviour becomes almost effortless. Put your trainers and gym kit by the door, so you just have to grab your bag and go, rather than taking 10 frantic minutes rummaging around the house looking for clean socks!
- Make it attractive. If you want to improve sleep, make your room a desirable place to sleep in. Clean sheets on a freshly made bed make that cosy night in much more appealing.
5. Be accountable.
Accountability is a powerful motivator in behavioural change. Tell someone what you are doing and ask if you can check in with them to discuss challenges and progress. Additionally, tracking your progress through a journal or mobile apps can also enhance accountability. By joining a group of people who are doing the same things, people often find that sharing ideas which work can be really motivating.
6. Treat yourself with kindness.
Having some self-compassion and learning from setbacks is key to maintaining new behaviours. Check that you are being realistic with your expectations and remember that small changes consistently completed, will build into habits that become the foundations of your life.
Click here to read more about Emerging Futures Behaviour Change programmes and the impact it has on those who use our services.